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General John Stark: The Man, the Motto, and the "Coverup"

Written By: Jack Kenny  |  Posted: Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

          John Stark was a genuine hero of the American Revolutionary War or, if you prefer, America's War for Independence. That he is not generally known beyond the borders of his native New Hampshire is hardly surprising. After George Washington, not many Americans can name a general of that war. And New Hampshire has made General Stark so much its own that his famous saying, "Live Free or Die," has been adopted as the state motto and been engraved on all the state's noncommercial license plates since 1969, replacing the word "Scenic." The motto has not been universally appreciated, however, and one citizen's insistence on taping over it became a legal battle that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

            The future general was born in 1728 in Londonderry, New Hampshire, a small town bordering on the present city of Manchester, the state's largest municipality. The entire state was rural, and battles with Indian tribes were not uncommon at a time when the settled East resembled in many ways the Wild West. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Manchester, which was then the township of Derryfield. As a young man of 24, he was on a hunting trip along a tributary of the Pemigewasset River when he was captured by Abenaki Indians and carried off to Quebec. He and fellow prisoner Amos Eastman were forced to run a gauntlet of warriors armed with sticks. Stark grabbed the stick from the first Indian he encountered in the line and attacked him with it, taking the whole line by surprise. The chief was said to be so impressed with Stark's combative instincts and courage that the New Hampshire native was adopted into the tribe. He spent the winter with his new family in Canada. By spring, however, a government agent from Massachusetts was sent to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Stark was ransomed with $103 Spanish dollars, while $60 was expended for the release of Eastman. Both men returned to New Hampshire.

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